The Immigration Act of 1990: Unfinished Business a Quarter-Century Later

Muzaffar Chishti & Stephen Yale-Loehr
Date of Publication: 
July, 2016
Source Organization: 
Migration Policy Institute

It has been more than a quarter century since the U.S. immigration system was last overhauled. The 1990 Immigration Act aimed to tilt the visa allocation system more toward answering the demands of the U.S. economy. Much of this paper is dedicated to reviewing changes made by the 1990 Immigration Act and assessing their effects. The authors note that, while the percentage of immigrants entering through the employment-based system has increased, in reality more than half of those coming in on employment-based visas are family members of the workers admitted. Only 7 percent are actually coming in based on their skills. At the other end of the skills spectrum, the new law limited the admission of lower-skilled immigrants to 10,000 (subsequently reduced to 5,000), and in subsequent years, the number of undocumented immigrants (filling mainly lower-skilled jobs) has tripled. Meanwhile, the new diversity visa provision, originally intended to provide a vehicle for immigrants mainly from Europe, who had been adversely affected by changes made by the 1965 Act, has more than any other provision of immigration law been responsible for the growth in immigration from Africa. The authors note that, while the law helped achieve policy goals at the time, for example, by increasing the number of employment-based immigrants, neither Congress nor business and labor leaders, who had conflicting views on admission numbers, had a true grasp of the future workforce needs of the economy. In the ensuing years, "the U.S. and global economies have undergone multiple cycles of change," while the visa allocation system remains frozen 25 years in the past. Unfortunately, during the same period, political trust and bipartisanship in congress have declined, making compromise and the ability to enact much needed reform more difficult.  (Maurice Belanger, Maurice Belanger Consulting)

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Chishti, M. & Yale-Loehr, S. (2016). The Immigration Act of 1990: Unfinished Business a Quarter-Century Later. Migration Policy Institute. Washington: DC. Available at: